Jacob Zuma. Picture: GCIS
Jacob Zuma. Picture: GCIS

Jacob Zuma’s days in power are counted. This is the dominant view, but could it be wrong?

On Wednesday last week, Business Day reported that at a November 27 gathering of the ANC candidates to succeed him, Zuma presented himself as unifier against a possible party split. He appeared to reposition himself from being a backer of former wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

One possible cause of this development may be the realisation by Zuma that Dlamini-Zuma may lose, having failed to escape the label of Manchurian candidate for an unpopular president. In this scenario, departure from power carries high risks for him: criminal prosecution for corruption, investigation of state capture.

Another possible cause is that Zuma never expected a Dlamini-Zuma win. In this scenario, she is a foil against his adversaries, affording him space to consolidate government control. Zuma can rise as arbiter of the leadership contest, the unifier against a split and certain defeat in 2019.

Zuma would fare poorly if Dlamini-Zuma lost and much worse if the ANC lost in 2019. Remaining president of the country after a strong Cyril Ramaphosa victory would be difficult. Remaining president with a high likelihood of an ANC defeat would unacceptably raise the risks.

The first marker that Zuma is positioning himself to be arbiter is his insistence that the best loser be appointed deputy president for unity’s sake — Dlamini-Zuma, for instance. A Zuma confident in her victory would not have made such a proposal.

The second marker is that the candidate gathering was held at the behest of Zuma. With all the top six members in the contest bar himself, he is ideally positioned to rise above the fray. Monday’s move was most likely another step in the party unity theme he seeks to incarnate.

Circumstances are aligning in favour of his bid. Chaos in the delegates’ nomination is the third marker, and represents Zuma’s key lever. The Free State, North West and KwaZulu-Natal are in court. The party is tearing itself apart. Whoever wins will suffer a crippling loss of legitimacy, making the risk of a split tangibly near. The fact that key Dlamini-Zuma-allied provinces are experiencing the most disruption serves the interest of the losing side, and points to the possibility of organised disruption.

Zuma reshuffled his cabinet, removing opponents and maintaining the blatantly incompetent and plausibly corrupt

The fourth marker is Mpumalanga’s decision to "vote for unity". The provincial leadership has been a strong Zuma ally and pillar of the Premier League.

Why not simply vote Dlamini-Zuma? The fifth marker is Zuma’s behaviour, remarkably at odds with that of a marked man. The prospect of impending exit should have led him to caution. Yet he sacked Pravin Gordhan and appointed a safe hand, prompting expected downgrades. He reshuffled the Cabinet, removing opponents and maintaining the blatantly incompetent and plausibly corrupt. He appointed trusted associates in key security functions. There is as yet no state capture inquiry. No prosecution. His ministers have shown contempt for the parliamentary inquiry.

He has at long last achieved complete control of his government, a feat that had escaped him until now. Acting this way a mere three months before losing power is irrational. Unless.…

Going forward, there is the vote-buying option. Mpumalanga makes the vote tally ahead of the conference murky, creating space for turning delegates against Ramaphosa. This could help deliver a straight Dlamini-Zuma victory and eliminate the need for the unity option. However, it would heighten the risk of a split now and polling defeat in 2019.

What of the option of a Zuma third term? Mbeki’s bid was a chastening experience. Zuma is not a candidate. But it could happen nonetheless on voting day. Mpumalanga, for instance, could call for a Zuma candidacy and rally the Dlamini-Zuma camp in favour of unity. But the risk of a split would be high, defeating the unity purpose.

And so would the risk of defeat in 2019.

Zuma appears set to become the arbiter in the upcoming stalemate. This is an ideal position, which he will no doubt use to his advantage: either negotiate a safe early retirement, remain president of SA until 2019, or remain president of both party and country until 2019. This last option makes a 2019 defeat more likely.

We cannot guess what ultimately drives Zuma. Most likely, power and safety. For him, these have become mutually exclusive.

If safety is dominant, he will use his considerable power to negotiate an exit. Conversely, he has no way of maintaining power against the hard wall of a constitutional term limit and the resulting outcome: war between Zuma, the ANC and SA. This would indeed not be optimal. A safe exit is the best outcome.

• Baissac is CEO of strategy consultancy Eunomix.

Please sign in or register to comment.